Story and photos by Dheema Ariyapala
We should have beaten a hasty retreat from this house we called home, but we never did. We lived in it quite comfortably for fourteen years, spooks and all !
It was September 2002, just before my daughter was born. I was in my eighth month of pregnancy and looking forward to swaddling and cradling my baby girl in my arms. It was a significant month for me, as it was then that I settled on the name Sonia Latha, for my baby girl.
But there was a particular night during the first week of September 2002 that stood out, and it was not because of my baby.
|Catchy, contemporary Ikea dining- room table|
I was laying out the dining table for a simple meal of rice porridge and mixed vegetable stew. It was a rectangular IKEA dining table made of natural wood veneer. A frosted tempered glass trimmed with the same wood formed the tabletop. There were the standard four chairs all sturdy and stable. A single chair was nestled at each opposing ends of the table and one each at the parallel lengths of it. The former owners of our home incidentally, left this table behind. It was a pretty table and we decided to keep it.
I proceeded to place one dinner bowl at one end of the table where my husband was already seated and placed mine adjacent to it. I would normally place my plate or bowl at the other opposing end of the table, but for some reason, I chose to place it closer to my husband’s.
Just as soon as I had put my cutlery down and was about to take my seat, the chair at the opposite end of the table was pulled back with a jarring screech. I shot a quizzical look at my husband.
“Did you just to that…did you just kick the chair opposite yours?” I asked in a hushed tone.
“No, I couldn’t have even if I wanted to, I would have to slide down my own chair just to reach that far!” he protested. We both remained silent for a while, trying to take in what had just happened.
My husband then glanced up at me with a queer look on his face and asked, “You do know what day it is today right?
I shook my head.
|Hungry Ghost Festival offerings|
“It is the last day of the Hungry Ghost Festival…and someone or something probably wants to join us for dinner”, he ventured.
Instead of paralyzing fear, it was an overwhelming sense of melancholy that enveloped me just after my husband made that remark in jest. I nonchalantly took another empty bowl and ladled some hot porridge into it. I neatly placed the now full bowl together with a set of chopsticks and spoon at that side of the table for the ‘consumption’ of our unseen and uninvited guest.
Needless to say, my husband and I ate our dinner quickly that night. Dessert was scrapped, for obvious reasons.
We had no such visitations to dine thereafter and gladly resumed all our meals at that table, with an occasional nervous glance at the other empty chairs shortly after that episode. No more ghosts, hungry or otherwise, made their presence felt at that dining table.
But it was not the end of more uninvited guests to our home.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter of 2005. The day began as it normally does for many of our Saturday mornings. A hearty breakfast of roti chanai or nasi lemak capped off with the perfect dose of nescafe tarik, ‘kurang manis’ of course.
I vividly remember that that afternoon, my daughter Sonia, more than three years old by then, was having a whale of time playing ‘toss the ball’ with my house help from Indonesia. Shouts and exclaims of “bagus”, “clever girl”, “ehh jaga dik” accompanied by giggles and squeals of laughter could be heard coming from the living room where they were playing.
|Sonia at three years old|
It was humid, and the time was possibly about 3 pm. The fans were all at full speed and I was busy de-cluttering the kitchen cabinets. I decided to join them in the living room soon after, as it was a far cooler place than the rest of our home. Tucked at the right hand corner of our small living room was the staircase that led to the rooms upstairs. The last step at the bottom was my favourite place to sit while chatting with guests.
|well-polished, wooden stairs|
I was about to take my place at the bottom step when Sonia looked up at with me alarm. She waved her hands in the air and shrieked, “Mama, please don’t sit there!
I assumed that she wanted me to sit closer to the fun and so I headed for one of the single chairs in the living room. This time she glared at me with furrowed eyebrows and said in a serious almost castigating tone, “Mama, don’t. Uncle is sitting there!”
My house help (who understood and spoke a fair bit of English) turned to look at me and with a raised palm gestured to me to remain calm.
“Ini sudah perkara biasa Ms Dheema, especially buat masa umur ni”, she counseled.
I suppressed my rising panic by dismissing it as the typical behaviour of a child with an overactive imagination. But at the very next moment, Sonia pointed to the bottom of the step and very innocently asked, “ Mama, can that little boy join us?”
Her unexpected remark triggered the alarm bells in my head to ring deafeningly. My heart raced at a couple of hundred beats per minute. I was struggling to think of what to say to her without getting her frightened. Clearly, the living room had more “guests” than we could handle. I took Sonia aside, sat myself down on the other “vacant ” single chair and carried her onto my lap.
Her eyes fell towards the direction of the stairs and she remained quiet for several seconds. My eyes were glued to her face, as she seemed to be communicating telepathically with who ever that was there. She then turned to me and said with a broad smile, “No, he wants to sit there only.”
“Well then, sayang, let the little boy sit there quietly for a while okay. Maybe he just wants to watch the fun just like how Mama wants to, ” I suggested to her calmly with no trace of panic or fear in my voice.
Sonia was content with that response and went on to play joyfully, not realising for a moment that neither my house help nor me could see, what more speak, to our uninvited guests.